Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

Getting stoned at a concert calls up images of booze, grass or any number of street drugs. Back in 1949 it meant something else entirely….. union and protest songs, red scare, mobs, complicit police, rocks and broken glass.

My friend Stanley and I were bussed to Peekskill, New York, to attend a Paul Robeson outdoor concert. He sang against the deliberate provocation of an overhead helicopter. It took his bass-baritone timbre to overcome the noise. Robeson’s voice could set bones rattling and stir 16 year-old kids to follow him anywhere.

Before Paul Robeson began, Pete Seeger warmed up the audience in his inimicable way. He engaged our voice not only our ears. He was 30 but he looked 19 and he still looked 19 a decade later.There was something about the way he stood, erect with his Adam's Apple out there and his head unflinching. It wasn’t just his voice though that was a clarion call. It wasn’t only the sound of his banjo or 12-string guitar though that was his alone. It was his posture, his presence which said, I shall not be moved. There was a gentle unshakable vehemence in the man.

I had attended other hootenannies the year before when Pete Seeger sang during the 1948 presidential campaign for Henry Wallace. I listened, over and over, to his 78 rpm record album, Talking Union sung along with Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays. Perhaps he was preaching to the choir but choirs need preaching to when the struggle seems overwhelming.

The concert that day went on in defiance of the police interference and whipped up jeers of the hoodlums. Trouble began as we boarded the chartered busses to leave. Local authorities directed our exit down a one-lane road lined with a rock-throwing mob while police looked on amused. We were forced to the floor as the stones came through the windows shattering glass. Dozens of people were hospitalized.

Seeger later gathered those stones and used them to build a fireplace in his home nearby. This was his statement turning weaponry to plowshares. As his song goes, To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season for every purpose under heaven. A time to dance, a time to mourn, a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.

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